Book Review: Altar of Secrets

Aries C. Rufo, a prize-winning Filipino journalist, was once a devout Catholic who as a youth "loved staying inside the church for it offered refuge from the punishing heat outside. The airy atmosphere and the deafening silence were pure ecstasy," he writes. As a boy he seriously contemplated entering the seminary although the desire to do so eventually waned.

After decades as a journalist, some of it spent covering the Catholic Bishop's Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), he sat down to write this book, Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church.

"While the Church dips its fingers into every aspect of Filipino life," he writes, "it has resisted outside attempts to poke into its internal affairs. Like a cloistered monastery, it has kept from the public the scandals and irregularities of its members, within its sacrosanct walls."

With Catholics making up 86 percent of the Philippine population and with the bishops holding inordinate sway over the country's leaders, the church seemed almost unassailable. But Rufo's journey through the secrets of the Catholic Church of the Philippines finds an institution in grave disarray. The Conference's last-ditch attempt to stop passage of the landmark Reproductive Health Bill failed and the subsequent attempt earlier this year to drive lawmakers from office for voting for the measure was also a miserable failure. Earlier this year a survey by the church found that more than half of Filipino Catholics have not married under Catholic rites.

What Rufo found went well beyond those problems. As the accompanying excerpt from the book shows, the practice of priests violating their vow of continence and celibacy is so widespread that an orphanage in Metro Manila, run by the church, caters to their children. As the excerpt notes, it wasn't just parish priests. Two ranking bishops headed for stardom within the church were forced out after their sexual dalliances were made public.

Stung by publicity over the priests' violations of their vows, the bishops issued guidelines on sexual abuses and misconduct by the clergy, listing the protocol that bishops should follow and observe in dealing with errant priests, covering violations of continence and abstinence, child abuse and sexual misconduct. But when the document was submitted to Rome for approval, the Vatican turned it down because it was too lenient. So the bishops set up their own "quota system," allowing offending priests to remain in the ministry if they fathered only one child. "It is only when he begets a second child that he will be dismissed from the ministry," the guidelines said.

"Apparently, the bishops took their cue from the Vatican," Rufo writes, "which rejected the "zero tolerance" policy that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sought to adopt in June 2002 against pedophile priests in response to the widespread reports of the abuse of minors and children by men of the cloth. If Rome is averse to a "one strike, you are out policy," how, then, can the CBCP be holier than the Pope?"

It ought to be recognized that the Philippine response to priestly marriage and sex is probably more realistic than Rome's, which makes unreasonable demands of sexual celibacy on ordinary human beings, who are driven by reality to often violate their vows, an astonishing number through homosexuality and a large number through other means. Although Rufo doesn't deal with it, there have long been credible rumors of priests who quietly marry in their communities. But in the matter of money, Rufo found, the Philippine church is responsible for both high crimes and misdemeanors, with parish priests often dipping into the collection box to fund more than just the operation of their parish and financial high-jinks going on in the high councils.

"The case of Reverend Bayani Valenzuela of St. Andrew's Parish in Paraňanque, is one glaring example," Rufo writes. "For years, Valenzuela plundered the parish and parochial school's coffers under the noses of finance council members...Tapping family members and relatives for parish work, Valenzuela siphoned money from Sunday collections, commingled parish and school funds, and used these funds to pamper himself with luxuries such as five-star hotel gym fees and expensive meals."

Nor was Valenzuela alone, Rufo finds. In some dioceses, so much money was being siphoned off that higher officials thought collections were slowing. Those appointed to handle church funds embezzled the money themselves. There were more disturbing cases emanating from the bishops themselves, such as in the sale of excess, extremely valuable church property in a subterfuge to cheat the government out of tax monies. When the fraud was discovered, it nearly led to the cancellation of a visit to the Philippines by Pope John Paul II. There are other, similar issues of financial irregularities all up and down the church, from the priests dipping into the collection baskets all the way up to the top of the institution's hierarchy.

There is a great deal more in this book that unfortunately can't be covered in an abbreviated review, including the high-handed treatment of lay women and nuns by top church figures. But it is enough to say that it is meticulously researched and footnoted, and it gives a troubling picture of a sacred institution that is increasingly out of touch with a flock no longer satisfied with a medieval approach to the world.

The fact, noted above, that so many Filipinos marry outside the church and ignore its teachings, let alone the misconduct that Rufo renders so thoroughly here, ought to put the Council of Catholic Bishops on notice that the church needs thoroughgoing reform. At the very least, they need to read this book.